For his next act, he plays the guitar

In ‘Crazy Heart,’ Jeff Bridges played a down-on-his luck country music star, but in reality he’s been a musician all his life

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comAugust 23, 2012 

  • JEFF BRIDGES AND THE ABIDERS

    5:15 and 9 p.m. today

    SLO Brewing Co., 1119 Garden St., San Luis Obispo

    $45

    543-1843 or www.slobrewingco.com

In an effort to seem currently relevant, many artists distance themselves from past work. But Jeff Bridges has embraced his 1998 movie “The Big Lebowski” so much, he even named his band after a line in the movie.

“We were sitting around the table one day, trying to figure out what we were going to call ourselves,” said Bridges, whose carefree “Lebowski” character, the Dude, has become a cultural icon. “And we were thinking that ‘Lebowski’ was pretty popular. I wanted to call us The Royal We. But the other guys, they said, ‘No — The Abiders.’ ”

And, of course, the Dude does — in the parlance of our times — abide. Which is why it’s Jeff Bridges & The Abiders performing two shows at SLO Brew tonight.

While Bridges has made some of his best movies since “The Big Lebowski” — including “Crazy Heart,” which earned him his first Academy Award and launched his musical career — he’s still seen as a laid-back stoner type, a la the Dude, even though he’s constantly busy making films, publishing a photography book, creating art and now touring as a leader of a band.

“It surprises me that I have those aspects to myself,” he admitted while on the road not far from his home in Santa Barbara. “I consider myself a pretty lazy guy. But when I look in the rearview mirror, I can see that I’ve been doing a lot of stuff.”

His newfound career as a recording artist wasn’t completely out of the blue. On the one hand, he released By

his first major label record — “Jeff Bridges,” on Blue Note Records — at the age of 61. On the other hand, he’s been playing music since he was a child, when his mother first had him take piano lessons.

But for Bridges, the son of actor Lloyd Bridges and the younger brother of actor Beau Bridges, getting into film was a given. And he happened to be good at it, as proven by acclaimed performances in movies like “The Last Picture Show,” “The Fisher King,” “Seabiscuit” and the recent Coen brothers’ film “True Grit.”

So while he did occasionally perform in L.A. coffeehouses when he was younger, acting was an obvious career path. Still, every now and then Bridges would employ his musical skills in a role. Most notably, there was “Crazy Heart” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” in which he and his brother portrayed lounge singers. But there have also been small parts, like a scene in which he played guitar and sang in “American Heart” or a little ukulele song his penguin character portrayed in the animated “Surf’s Up.”

“It’s funny,” he said. “The one in ‘American Heart,’ the director knows that I play guitar, so he suggested that I play ‘Sunny Side of the Street,’ and that seemed to go well with the scene. And then with ‘Surf’s Up,’ my buddy John Goodwin was over one day. I was on the phone, and he was reading that script, and he wrote that song in about five minutes. I pitched it to the guys, and they liked it.”

Even when he wasn’t playing music in movies, he often played music with fellow actors in between filming. Bridges had memorable jam sessions with co-star Kris Kristofferson on the set for the 1980 film “Heaven’s Gate.” And more recently, he jammed with actor Keven Bacon on the set of the upcoming film “R. I.P.D.”

“Kevin’s a wonderful musician,” he said. “He’s got that band with his brother, and they really work all the time.”

While Bridges had released an album on his own Ramp Records label in 2000, it didn’t get much attention. But his role as a broken-down country singer in the 2009 drama “Crazy Heart” had critics praising his musical acumen.

As Bad Blake, Bridges portrayed a washed-up singer who has resorted to performing in dive bars and — the Dude would surely appreciate—bowling alleys. Based on the Thomas Cobb novel of the same name, the screenplay was written with Bridges in mind.

Yet, he wasn’t interested until producer T-BoneBurnett— who, incidentally, handled the music for “The Big Lebowski” — got involved. At that point, several songs — written by Burnett, Goodwin, Ryan Bingham and longtime Bridges friend Stephen Bruton—were crafted for the Blake character, making the music an integral part of the plot.

After the “Crazy Heart” accolades poured in — Bridges won the Oscar for best actor while “The Weary Kind” won the Oscar for best original song —Bridges started to consider making more music, this time as Jeff Bridges.

“The success of that movie certainly was encouraging — and the fact that my good buddy T

Bone Burnett did the music for the movie,” Bridges said. “I’ve been doing music since I was a kid, so music wasn’t necessarily new to me. But working with Bone in that capacity was wonderful. And I asked if he wanted to do an album, and then the music thing kind of put more kindling on that fire. So we wanted to play more, and I’ve got some dear friends here in Santa Barbara that I play with so we decided to form a band and go out and play.”

After releasing “Jeff Bridges,” a collection of new music written by Bridges and his friends, he and the Abiders played three gigs at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez. Then they went on tour.

To make it possible, Bridges took a year off from acting.

“I’m 63 years old, and I’ve been doing music all my life,” he said. “And I thought, if I’m ever going to do music in a more serious, concentrated fashion, now is the time to do it.”

While his album does feature country songs — including the catchy “What a Little Love Can Do,” cowritten by the late Bruton — they’re not necessarily the outlaw country-inspired tunes that would have made the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack.

“There are some tunes in there that Bad Blake might have done,” Bridges said. “Others are not in his wheelhouse.”

The songs Bridges penned channel Leonard Cohen—a musical idol —with more deliberate, moody pacing. Others have folk and rock influences.

In concert, Bridges will play songs off his latest album, plus tunes from “Crazy Heart” and some covers. One song he’s been known to perform is “The Man in Me,” the Bob Dylan song used in “The Big Lebowski.”

Which brings to mind another musical question inspired by that film: What does Bridges think of Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Eagles?

“I love Creedence — they were one of my favorite bands,” Bridges said. “And, you know, the Dude hated The Eagles. I’m not quite as adamant about that as the Dude is. The Eagles have done some pretty good stuff. But I think from the Dude’s perspective, they might have polished stuff a little too much.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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